Researchers turn chicken checker into smart Covid-19 detector
May 5, 2020
Scientists at three UK universities have converted a device for checking chickens for viral infections into a smart testing device for Covid-19.
Incorporating artificial intelligence, image processing, molecular virology and experience in the applied technologies, researchers at Brunel University London, Lancaster University and University of Surrey have developed a device to detect Covid-19 in 30 minutes using an intelligent smartphone app.
The science behind the device has been tested in the Philippines to check chickens for viral infections. The team has adapted it to detect Covid-19 in humans and is talking with backers to get it urgently mass-produced.
The system can perform diagnostics at any location with very minimal training. The researchers believe the device would be operated by ambulatory care professionals, nurses and biomedical scientists. It would also let people self-isolating test themselves and health care workers test patients to help slow the spread of the pandemic and ease the burden on health services.
“Now we have access to multiple genomes (blueprint) of Sars-Cov-2 virus, we can develop reliable molecular assay in a week and have them up and running on the device in three or four weeks,” said Brunel University London professor Wamadeva Balachandran. “We are confident it will respond well, and we rapidly need industrial partners to come on board. It will have a huge impact on the population at large.”
The battery-operated and hand-held smartphone-linked device costs about £100 per device and is easy to use. Developed in collaboration with Lancaster University and the University of Surrey, it works by taking nasal or throat swabs, which are put into the device. Then, in 30 minutes, it can determine if someone has Covid-19. The samples don’t need to go to a laboratory and the same device can test six people at once at a cost of around £4 per person.
“The team strongly believes that with our combined expertise, we will be able to make this device and its associated system available for adoption within a few weeks and take a step closer to beating Covid-19,” said Muhammad Munir, molecular virologist at Lancaster University.
The team is also working on adding telemedicine functionality to the mobile app to control the device, track the user’s movement with government permission and contact anyone who has had a close interaction with the person diagnosed to suggest the next steps to do to reduce the Covid-19 infection and stop the spread to others.
“Normally, anything like this would have to go through clinical trials,” said Balachandran. “But this is not a normal situation. According to the Imperial College model, this pandemic might last for 18 months. And cases will rise over the next few months. Everyone is crying out for these tests, and many will take a long time. We have limited time to stop the virus spreading, so anything like this is going to help. Speed is essential. With local hospitals’ help we aim to do a limited number of tests with available positive and negative samples.”
The idea is to try and make it cheaper than other tests so it can be used worldwide at home, in GP surgeries, hospitals and workplaces. Once infection is identified, the intelligent system will track down all people who had close contact with the newly identified patient in the previous 14 days, alert them about the threat of having Covid-19 and advise them what to do via the mobile phone app.
“We are delighted to be involved in the development of rapid diagnostic tools for Covid-19,” said Roberto La Ragione, deputy head of the school of veterinary medicine at the University of Surrey. “With a rapid response from manufacturers, we could deliver a point-of-care test kit to support mass-scale testing within the NHS and globally."
Anil Fernando, also from the University of Surrey, added: “The team firmly believe that both identifying Covid-19 infection and minimising the spread of infection are important. Once infection is identified using this device, the app will automatically update the database and the intelligent system will track down all individuals who have been in close contact with the newly identified patient, alert them about the threat of having Covid-19 and make recommendations regarding further steps.”